Sport and the Color Line: Black Athletes and Race Relations in Twentieth-Century America

By Patrick B. Miller; David K. Wiggins | Go to book overview

13

CIVIL RIGHTS ON THE GRIDIRON

The Kennedy Administration and the Desegregation of the Washington Redskins

Thomas G. Smith

"WE'LL START SIGNING NEGROES," Washington Redskins owner George Preston Marshall once quipped, "when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites." In 1961, the Redskins were the only team in professional football without a black player. In fact, in the twentyfive year history of the franchise no black had ever played for George Marshall. Sam Lacy, the gifted black sportswriter for the Baltimore Afro-American called Redskins football's the "lone wolf in lily-whiteism." Their owner was "the one operator in the whole structure of major league sports who has openly flouted his distaste for tan athletes." 1

Elected to office on a pro-civil rights platform and eager to display its commitment to the campaign promise of equal job opportunity, the Kennedy Administration moved to desegregate the Redskins. That action, in the highly visible sports arena, signaled to the nation a more aggressive civil rights policy. On March 24, 1961 Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall warned Marshall to hire black players or face federal retribution. For the first time in history, the federal government had attempted to desegregate a professional sports team. An examination of that effort shows the deep divisions in American society over the struggle for black equality and provides insights into the New Frontier's civil rights program. 2

Along with George Halas of the Chicago Bears and Art Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers, George P. Marshall was one of the founding fathers of the National Football League (NFL). Opinionated, flamboyant and contentious, Marshall was also imaginative, shrewd and persuasive. His contributions to the game have earned him election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Born in Grafton, West Virginia, in 1896, Marshall was raised in Washington, D.C. and always considered that city home. He dropped out of high school to pursue acting, but that career was interrupted by two years of service in World War I. Upon his father's death in 1919, he took over the family business: the Palace Laundry. As a businessman, Marshall displayed a knack for promotion through clever advertising. He developed the slogan "Long Live Linen" and once ran a newspaper advertisement which consisted of a blank page except for a few words at the bottom which read: "This space was cleaned by Palace Laundry." By 1946, when he sold-out, he had transformed a small family business into a multi-million-dollar chain with fifty-seven stores.

Marshall first became a sports owner in 1926 when he financed a professional basketball team, the Washington Palace Five. Six years later, he invested in a National Football

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